Eco-political, frantic, and undeniably epic, Paul McAuley's latest novel The Quiet War was nominated for a Clarke this year. It's time to check out this hard science tale of gene wizards and posthuman separatists.
What is immediately and consistently engaging about The Quiet War is McAuley's ability to turn the hard sciences of bioengineering and synthetic ecosystems into the stuff of storytelling awesomeness. Reluctant hero Macy is a scrappy soil engineer who has been given a dream assignment on Jupiter's moon Callisto. Brilliant at putting together the perfect combination of bacteria and chemicals to create topsoils, she's been recruited by a crack team of eco-engineers who are building a new domed habitat there.
As we plunge into her geeky work with carbon captures and gene expression, we learn quickly that the novel is set in a future where Earth has suffered a catastrophic environmental collapse. As a result, its governments have become arch conservatives devoted entirely to ecosystem stability. One of the most powerful governments is that of Greater Brazil, where Macy grew up into a political world that resembles a Mafia family more than a democracy. The citizens are ruled by great families who own the people who work for them and offer special privileges to those who are "consanguinous," or connected to the families by blood.
While Earth's culture curdles, its colonies bloom. New developments in synthetic biology have allowed millions of people to relocate offworld, moving outward to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter (Mars has been destroyed in a war). Led by culture hero and "gene wizard" Avernus, the Outers have created perfect biosystems within their domes, breeding vacuum crops that can leech necessary elements from the moons' soils and oceans and ice. They live in Enceladus' underground oceans, plant their crops on the shoulders of asteroid impacts, and grow gardens deep in the clouds of Saturn.
When McAuley is describing the amazing environments where the Outers live, complete with exotic flora, he's at his soaring best. He's created a world that feels scientifically plausible, and infuses it with a sense of genuine wonder. In essence, he's built the perfect setting for a quest narrative which rambles across astonishing lands that lead to something unimaginable. Unfortunately, however, McAuley isn't interested in quests. This novel is about war and espionage.
Don't get me wrong - I love war and espionage. And I think the political backdrop for The Quiet War makes good kindling for a system-wide blowup when an authoritarian Earth grows wary of the libertarian Outers. But despite intriguing characters like Macy, and a tragic bio-engineered terrorist named Dave, McAuley just isn't able to convince us that his war makes sense.
To be fair, this is partly because his message is that war is absurd. When Greater Brazil starts sending warships into orbit around key moons of Jupiter and Saturn as a kind of warning to the Outers, the Outer groups go nuts (especially a city named Paris - allegory much?). They become paranoid and issue threats. But then Brazil, which seems to want war really badly for reasons that are never truly explained beyond "those Outers just seem plumb different from us," responds with assassinations and more warships. At the bottom of the anti-Outer hatred is nothing more than ideology: People from Earth worship nature, and abhor the idea that the Outers are mutating nature and their own bodies in order to adapt to their new environments. Again, I think McAuley's point is well-taken: Many wars are begun over ideological differences even more daft than these.
When key personnel on her Callisto dome project are killed, Macy becomes a suspect amid growing tensions and has to flee from one weird moon city to another. Here, again, McAuley shows off his strengths: He offers pitch-perfect vignettes of small, isolated communities devoted to weird, Burning Man-style ideals like new age therapy or YouTube art. Everywhere Macy goes, she's startled by people who are recording her every move on video and posting it to the crazy, ubiquitous net the Outers adore (back on Earth, where the governments are more authoritarian, there is no social media - only top-down propaganda). She meets separatists who believe they are carrying out orders from their future selves, and a cute adventurer with a pink spaceship called Elephant.
No matter where she winds up, however, Macy manages to find work as a soil engineer, helping to build new habitats on the moons where humanity is evolving into something new - and yet something very familiar. Dogged by a petty Brazilian bureaucrat, and aided by the mysterious Avernus, Macy manages to survive the worst of the conflict.
It sounds odd to say this about such a long novel, but The Quiet War leaves you wishing for more. Not more story as in "give me twenty sequels," but just more of Macy's human side to the story in this war that has swept her up against her will. Intead, McAuley tries to give us the big perspective, bringing in politicians and spies and counter-spies as well as an evil foil to the gene wizard Avernus - a woman called Sri whose cruelty and motivations are never satisfactorily explained.
Though flawed, The Quiet War makes you want more precisely because there's so much promise in its primary characters and settings. McAuley makes science incredibly exciting, and you'll have his weird images and ideas in your brain for days after you put the book down. War may not have been the best plot device to get this story in motion, but the vacuum organisms and communes on Uranus make this a novel well worth your time.
If you're in the States and want to get your mitts on this book, don't fret. Pyr is bringing out a US edition later this year.
The Quiet War via Amazon